X

Staples Connect review: One small step toward the smart-home singularity

This affordable, simple-looking hub promises to consolidate all of your smart home devices into one system.

Ryan_Crist2.jpg
Ry Crist
Ryan_Crist2.jpg

Ry Crist

Senior Editor / Reviews - Appliances

Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, and home networking.

See full bio
6 min read

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

There's little doubt that the popularity of "smart home" products is surging. Connected devices both large and small were everywhere at CES this year, and with Google buying Nest recently, it's clear that the titans of tech are paying attention.

ColinWestMcDonaldCNET-0071.jpg
7.2

Staples Connect

The Good

<b>Staples Connect</b> is a smooth, simple-to-use system that delivers on its promise of integrating devices of different networking protocols into a single home automation network, all without monthly fees.

The Bad

Device controls within the Staples Connect app are too limited -- for full functionality, you'll need to keep most of those apps you were hoping to replace.

The Bottom Line

It's probably too early to commit to a master smart-home platform, but for basic home automation across multiple devices, Staples Connect works well -- and at $99, it's priced just right.

But with all of these new devices comes a Babel-esque smattering of networking protocols -- the "languages" they use to receive and transmit data. Some speak to your router over Wi-Fi, others speak to your tablet over Bluetooth. Kwikset, Yale and Schlage make smart deadbolts that relay information using Z-Wave, while Philips Hue bulbs are fluent in ZigBee. There's Insteon's network, the Clear Connect protocol spoken by Lutron products, and countless other proprietary languages to keep track of. Try using multiple devices from different manufacturers and it'll become clear: a smart house divided cannot stand.

Staples Connect wants to mastermind a more unified smart home (pictures)

See all photos

Enter Staples Connect, a system that promises to unite your devices behind a single hub and a single app capable of controlling all of them. With fluency in multiple protocols and partnerships with some of the most popular connected-device manufacturers, the smart-home singularity that Staples is offering seems enticing -- especially given that its $99 hub is $200 cheaper than the Revolv, a rival hub that offers exactly the same thing.

So, does Staples Connect deliver? The answer is yes -- to an extent. The system is simple enough to set up and use, and it works reliably. Plus, with key product partners like Honeywell, Philips, and GE, along with a hardware partnership with Linksys, Staples Connect is well positioned for future growth. We saw as much at CES, when Staples and Zonoff, its platform provider, announced new partnerships with Goji, Koubachi, and Radio Thermostat, along with upcoming support for Insteon, Bluetooth, and ZigBee.

However, the functionality that the Staples Connect ecosystem offers for each compatible device isn't always deep enough to justify replacing the existing app outright. What's more, with certain products, you'll still need to plug a separate control device into your router. The dream is total unification -- one hub, one app -- and the software in Staples Connect isn't deep enough to bring us there.

Of course, these are issues that every would-be master hub is currently facing, and as such, it might be best to wait before committing to anything. That said, if you need something now, Staples Connect is robust enough -- and affordable enough -- to justify the purchase.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Design and features
The Staples Connect hub isn't much to look at. Its boring, plain-white plastic body doesn't have any of the fun, futuristic design touches that you'll see in a product like the Revolv, and it lacks some of the Revolv's functional touches, too. For instance, while you can place the Revolv wherever you like, the Staples Connect Hub will need to remain plugged into your router at all times, and it can't pair with your phone simply by flashing a light at it, either.

Still, the Staples Connect hub is a successfully simple device. After plugging it in, you'll never need to mess with it again -- just download the free app to your Android or iOS device or pull up the Web interface to get started. In terms of design, Staples' app again falls a bit short of Revolv's, which offers a more stylish user interface as well as useful built-in features like geofencing -- but it still gets the job done.

Connecting the hub is a quick and easy process. Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The Staples app will walk you through the the initial setup process in just a few minutes. After everything's plugged in, you'll need to wait for a few lights to turn blue, then enter the hub's serial number into the app. That's it. From there, it's simply a matter of connecting your devices, which is equally pain-free. Through the app's device manager, you'll tell the system which specific device you're adding, then follow simple pairing instructions specific to that device. For my tests, I added Philips Hue bulbs, a Yale smart lock, a GE appliance control module, and Lutron light dimmers. I didn't have difficulty with any of them.

This is where those product partnerships come into play. Staples is forgoing the more open approach to third-party devices that we're seeing with Revolv as well as with systems like SmartThings, and choosing instead to focus only on integrating products made by manufacturers with whom it's able to form strong business partnerships. The upside to this approach is that using these products within the Staples ecosystem is a piece of cake. The downside is that you won't have much luck trying to integrate devices that aren't partnered with Staples, even if they use a protocol that Staples supports.

A good example of this is the Belkin WeMo line of products, which use Wi-Fi. The Staples Connect hub is perfectly capable of receiving Wi-Fi signals, so you might expect that it would be able to control WeMo devices. It can't, because Belkin isn't currently one of Staples Connect's partners. Belkin doesn't support formal integration with any platform provider, but that didn't stop Revolv from back-ending WeMo integration into its system all the same. Staples Connect could do the same thing if Staples wanted it to -- but it doesn't.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Performance and usability
As said before, getting up and running with Staples Connect is a breeze. Once you've got everything hooked up, you'll be all set to start automating. Staples calls its automations "activities," and with a system capable of controlling hundreds of devices at once, you'll have room for plenty of them.

You'll choose between timed activities that occur -- you guessed it -- at a specific time of day, or triggered activities that happen on your command, or when certain conditions are met. I started my tests with a triggered activity labeled "School Pride." At the tap of a button on my smartphone app, the Philips Hue bulbs in our office would change to my alma mater's school colors. The hub would need to receive the signal from my smartphone over Wi-Fi, then send a Wi-Fi signal to the Philips bridge, telling it to send a ZigBee signal out to the bulbs, changing their color (yep, you still need the Philips bridge to use Hue bulbs with Staples Connect, at least for now). The activity worked like a charm each time, and never with any noticeable lag.

Next, I moved on to something a little more difficult: an activity involving two distinct protocols. After adding a Yale smart deadbolt to my system, I programmed the Hue bulbs to turn green whenever I unlocked the deadbolt and red whenever I locked it. Again, the activity worked perfectly, the lights changing almost instantly each time. I tried out some timed activities as well, with equally satisfying results.

For now, iPhone and Android users will have to log on to the Staples Connect Web site in order to create new automation activities. Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

One gripe, though: as of this writing, you can only create new activities from the iPad version of the app. iPhone and Android users can trigger existing activities, but will have to log on to the Web interface to add new ones. Zonoff tells me that an update to the iPhone app that includes support for activity creation is coming "in the next week or two," and that users of all devices should expect updates on "a pretty regular basis."

Beyond the activities, you'll also have remote control of your devices within the app. If you want to unlock the deadbolt or change the color of the Hue bulbs, you're just a few taps away. My only complaint with these controls is that they're often a bit basic and not quite as extensive as you'd find in the device's native app or software. You won't be able to send your Hue bulbs into a preprogrammed party mode, for instance, and you won't be able to automate your deadbolt based on the specific user code that's being entered. For times like this, when you need more than a basic level of control, you'll probably find yourself back in the Philips Hue app, or punching settings directly into your lock. Consumers who expect a master hub to offer near-total control over their devices might find this a little bit disappointing.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Conclusion
Is Staples Connect the one device to rule them all? It could be at some point, but it isn't yet -- and neither is anything else. No system has locked down compatibility with enough products to claim a stranglehold on the market, and none of them offer anything near full, across-the-board functionality for everything in your system.

But Staples is off to a very solid start, with a strong variety of products, an easy-to-use app, and enough basic controls to merit early adoption. Its hardware partnership with Linksys is worth remembering, too, as we might be nearing a point where devices like these don't just plug into routers but replace them altogether. Most important is the price, which for most consumers will clearly be an easier sell than the $299 Revolv. Guessing exactly where the market is headed would be a gamble, but at $99, it's an affordable one.

ColinWestMcDonaldCNET-0071.jpg
7.2

Staples Connect

Score Breakdown

Features 7Usability 8Design 6Performance 8